ME2/orchestra takes a tour of Vermont Prisons
Music can have a therapeutic effect on the listener. It has a certain ability to briefly pause time, to give us the chance to reflect and open us up to feeling we might not have known were really there. While many studies focus on how classical music can improve cognitive functioning in fields like academics, there is also evidence that creating or listening to music can be used for the benefit of your mental health. One great example of this is the ME2/orchestra, which is based in Vermont. The ME2/orchestra is “a model organization where people with and without mental illness work side-by-side in an environment where acceptance is an expectation, patience is encouraged, and supporting each other is a priority.” The orchestra is a safe place in which musicians with mental illness can perform great orchestral works and build lasting friendships with others without many of the stigmas that are attached to mental illness.
Recently, the orchestra embarked on a project that stems from their value of inclusiveness: a tour of the Vermont prison system. In hour-long performances, a cello trio went into the prisons and played a program of classical works for the inmates. The idea idea behind this project was bring music to this often-overlooked community, and provide Vermonters with a new window into their prisons. Caroline Whiddon, the executive director of the orchestra, said that the concerts have produced striking reactions. At first she says, the inmates enter and listen indifferently. But as the concert goes on, the faces loosen and then begin to look engaged; some she even describes as deeply affected, as if in a state of deep self-reflection. Music isn’t allowed inside the prison walls, so a concert like this is really the only chance they have for a moment of relief and quiet reflection inspired by art. One of Whiddon’s fondest memories from the concerts was, after finishing a piece by Bach, a prisoner in the front row asked, “What’s the story behind that piece? I need to know.”
If anyone had a doubt as to whether classical music has an essential role in society, here’s your proof. The ME2/orchestra alone is evidence of classical music’s healing power and its role as a social agent. Ronald Braunstein, the conductor who founded the ensemble and also lives with bipolar disorder, wanted to create a safe place where peopled who shared his struggle could work together and help each other. The orchestra has done just that for its members, and now it’s extending that benefit to others who need it. Some prisoners certainly could relate to the mental health struggles of members of the ME2/orchestra. Being given the rare opportunity to hear music has proven to be a therapeutic experience that initiates self-reflection, which is good for both the prisoner and for society. And that’s what orchestras are. Not just museums that preserve the great works of classical music for society, but cultural organizations that engage with its listeners. Classical music is not a luxury, but rathe something that improves our lives and our society.